I just finished reading an article in Christianity Today entitled, “Flip this Church.” It is about the latest trend in church development in America (I won’t say ‘church growth’ because this is a response to shrinking membership). As churches with charismatic leaders and superior marketing flourish, older, more traditional churches are languishing. In the past, the megachurches have simply absorbed smaller churches the way Amazon.com has replaced the local bookstore. The new trend is for the large churches to merge with smaller churches in a sort of religious franchise, creating satellite ‘campuses.’ The analogy the author uses to describe these multi-site campuses is an aircraft carrier that requires an entire fleet of warships to support its operation. He likened the head of this operation to a corporate CEO whose main function is management.
I found it interesting that the author compared the church to a couple of inanimate objects – a ship and a corporation. The Bible uses three primary analogies for the church – the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and the Family of God – all living, breathing creations of God. The former analogies describe organizations and the latter depict organisms. How does this difference in perception impact the ministry of the church?
Since an organization is a man-made creation, it has no life of its own. It cannot function independent of its creator, so it must be sustained by constant management. Indeed management was the focus of the entire article. How does a multi-site church preserve the cultures of its subsidiaries while providing the dynamics that produce growth? Who gets the property of the subsidiary if the megachurch suddenly finds itself in financial straits? What happens when the charismatic leader of the megachurch retires or resigns for some reason? Who will take up his mantle? Will the church suffer attrition dragging even more congregations down?
Notably absent from the article was any mention of the importance of fidelity to the Word of God, discipleship of believers, mutual ministry of the body, the role of pastor as shepherd or the ministry of the Holy Spirit in promoting spiritual and numerical growth. This is how the church has functioned since the days of the apostles. They never employed marketing techniques or contemporary management methods to govern and grow the church.
The author reflects the popular view of the church as a product of modern American marketing. In this paradigm, those who attend church are consumers of a religious product rather than worshipers of an Almighty God. God does not add to the church those who are being saved as He did at Pentecost. Rather, church leaders attract new members through their charismatic personalities, by making the message ‘seeker friendly’ and by turning the worship service into an entertainment venue. Worship leaders are professional musicians. The congregants are the audience that consumes this religious product.
According to another article I read online recently, people don’t join in singing hymns the way they used to. In the first place, the music is so loud that it is impossible to hear your own voice. You cannot even tell if you are singing on key! The volume level is also very difficult on the sensitive ears of the elderly (including yours truly). Secondly, why add your untrained voice to a number that is sung so beautifully by the gifted singers on stage? This deprives the believer of the opportunity to offer praise by lifting up his or her voice in song to the Lord.
The motivation underlying these modern trends is a desire to adapt the church ‘experience’ to modern culture. That means promoting diversity, affirming the whole spectrum of American lifestyles, and avoiding controversial topics (which are always defined by the culture as anything that upholds traditional values or absolute moral standards). This is called ‘seeker friendly.’ The object is to make the church comfortable for unbelievers in order to draw them in. After that they are encouraged to join the more informal, intimate setting of the small group where teaching can supposedly go deeper.
There are several problems with this approach, not the least of which is that it is not biblical. Jesus and the apostles never lessened the demands of the gospel to make it more ‘seeker friendly.’ Jesus sent the rich young ruler away sorrowful because he was unwilling to sell everything to follow the Lord. Obviously he saw something very attractive in Jesus and felt deep regret when Jesus demanded his all or nothing at all. It was a take it-or-leave-it proposition and the young man was simply too attached to this world’s goods to sacrifice them for eternal riches. That was not good enough for Jesus. The pastor of a seeker friendly church today would certainly not turn away such a promising prospect as the rich young ruler who, according to Jesus, was very close to the kingdom of God.
Jesus also said that a person must be willing to take up his cross and suffer if he wants to be a disciple. He required total allegiance to the point of being willing to separate from family and friends or give up one’s occupation if they stood in the way. He compared the believer to a person who finds a precious pearl and sells everything he has to purchase it. In fact, in John 6 when everyone else was deserting Him because his words were too difficult to bear, Jesus gave his disciples an ultimatum, “Will you leave me too?” These were His most intimate associates and He was not willing to compromise His message to keep their loyalty. Rather than urge his flock to give up everything to follow Christ, today’s pastor often tells newcomers not to feel obliged to put anything in the offering basket.
The second problem with treating the church as an organization rather than an organism is that it has come to be equated with an experience rather than a group of people who share a common bond in Jesus Christ. The experience is relegated to a particular time and place, i.e. Sunday morning or Saturday night at the church building. Add a small group meeting at someone’s home perhaps once or twice a month and that is often the sum total of time spent together. In the days of the apostles, believers met daily in the temple courts. That is not possible in the modern world, but most churches could certainly do a better job of fostering community. Our church shares a meal together after Sunday service once a month. Churches in Japan where I once lived eat lunch together every Sunday afternoon. I have often members of American churches say that they could die and no one at church would miss them. I recently attended funeral services for a Chinese friend who attended an American church. The vast majority of guests were from other churches in the Chinese community.
I belong to one of these Chinese churches. My wife immigrated to the States from Hong Kong when she was a young girl. Because most of the members still have relatives in China, they consider China home. To them, America is an alien land. For that reason, they take care of each other. The ones who have lived here longer show newcomers the ropes. They share one another’s needs and come to each other’s aid when needed. Ministry is not a program but a part of their lives. There are no groups for divorced people or single moms or people struggling with addictions. People aren’t classified by need for ministry purposes. When there is a need of any kind, the church family simply surrounds that individual with the appropriate help. They take the ministry to the person rather than expecting him or her to come to church to attend a program. That might mean providing meals or transportation or translation services or visiting shut-ins or giving assistance to the elderly on an individual basis. When the need is over, the ministry stops but the relationship never ends.
When an American church program is over, on the other hand, the individual often falls by the wayside because there is no further occasion to get together, no event on the calendar. The early church didn’t have programs. The closest thing to a program was the distribution of food to the widows in the book of Acts. But the Apostles didn’t give it a name just for the sake of perpetuating it. They simply met the needs on an individual basis as they arose. Perhaps church fellowship would be much closer if we really believed that this world is not our home and that we too are living as aliens in a foreign land.
A third problem is that those who view the church as an organization rather than an organism replace discipleship with the small group. The New Testament model was for older men and women to provide nurture and admonition to younger men and women. Nowadays, we break people up into homogeneous groups that study some book of the Bible or the writings of some popular Christian author. The original plan involved extensive mentoring and practical training. This ensured doctrinal purity and faithful obedience to the Word of God. The small group is more limited in scope, focusing primarily on study and prayer within the confines of the program schedule.
I belong to two small groups. Both are studying books by popular Christian authors that major on discussion and minor on biblical doctrine. The authors have an agenda and that is to sell books or videos. They take Bible verses out of context and use them to suit their purposes. Some of it sounds very spiritual but means something slightly different in its original context. Even subtle differences in nuance can add up to significant doctrinal error over time. Doctrinal error, in turn, can lead to unbiblical practice.
In one group we just finished studying a book entitled ‘Soul Keeping’ by John Ortberg, a former pastor at one of the largest megachurches in our area. The study is based on an analogy of the soul to a stream that needs to be constantly tended to remain pure and give life. The analogy was originally presented by a Christian ‘philosopher’ named Dallas Willard. I had never heard of Dallas Willard before, and never known a ‘Christian philosopher,’ but John Ortberg was obviously very enamored with him. In fact, he quoted Willard more than he did the Bible. When he did reference the Bible, he used it to support Willard’s analogy. Although he did not exactly misrepresent biblical teaching, he did shift the emphasis from a focus on the soul as the source of worship of God to something within ourselves that we must nurture for our own well being. A subtle shift to be sure, but a definite change in focus from God to man.
The leaders of these small groups are usually lay people who have no formal training and are not linked to the larger church by any authority. Their teachings may be consistent with sound doctrine, and they may not. If there is an issue that requires some correction, they have no authority to administer discipline since they represent only a small group, not the church. Yet seeker friendly churches relegate more in-depth teaching to these small groups while keeping the message at services simple for the uninitiated. So no one is being discipled at a deeper level. These groups are really meant to affirm people rather than encourage them to be faithful in their walk with the Lord even when that requires correction. They do not realize that at times the ‘wounds of a friend’ are an essential part of a growing relationship (Pr 27:6).
In one of these groups there is a woman who attends only very sporadically. Yet she rarely misses a social event and sends us her requests whenever she needs prayer. And she often needs prayer because she continually gets herself into situations that are inappropriate. She shares a rental property with three guys. One of them resents her because he had planned to bring his girlfriend home until she showed up. The guys are constantly fighting among themselves and she often gets in the middle. Rather than counsel her to find another place to rent, our group sympathizes with her and prays the guys will change their behavior.
Another woman has been separated from her husband for longer than we have been a part of this group (over two years). She wants to reconcile, but he apparently has no interest. Yet he doesn’t seem motivated to end the relationship either. Whether he is a believer or not, I do not know. This woman is very vague about her situation and evades answers to direct questions. But she still wants us to pray for her. It is difficult to know what to pray for without knowing the specifics. It is as though she knows what to do deep inside but is reluctant to face reality and do the hard thing. So the situation goes on and on in a state of uncertainty and she is absorbed in her troubles. Obviously, this makes it difficult for her to contribute to the kingdom of God by serving others. This is the kind of dysfunctional Christian corporate life that can take place when the small group takes the place of genuine discipleship.
A fourth problem is that the seeker friendly church service becomes a place for evangelism when it should be the primary venue for in-depth study of the Word of God. The assumption is that unbelievers will not endure sound Bible teaching. Yet the uncompromising preaching of the Word has been the sole means of bringing people to Christ since the first century.
We recently visited an old friend in Seattle. She told us how her late husband came to Christ after years of listening to our favorite preacher on Christian radio. He had been exposed to the clumsy sales pitches of many earnest Christians, but they always sounded like used car salesmen. Still, he tuned in to John MacArthur whenever his program was on the air, even though MacArthur is a solid Bible expositor who never avoids the deeper, more difficult passages of the Bible. Finally one day he pulled his car to the side of the road as he was listening and put his faith in Christ.
There are no altar calls at Grace Church where John MacArthur ministers, no invitations to accept Christ. Yet as his messages are spread around the world through his radio program, millions come to faith in Christ. By the time they have heard enough of John’s preaching to commit their lives to Christ, they know the cost. It is usually not a shallow commitment based on a four point presentation or an appeal to come to Jesus for all the blessings He can confer. They come with the realization that they must yield up everything else to have Jesus.
Making the Sunday morning service a place for evangelism takes away one incentive for people to share Christ at home and in their workplace. They come to expect the religious professionals to handle that job. But it is not natural for unbelievers to take their first step towards Christ through the door of a church full of believers. That would be very intimidating. The place for evangelism is in the familiar environs of the unbeliever and the role of the evangelist belongs to the believers who associate with them there.
Finally, the life of the church as an organization is sustained more by the popularity of the preacher than the power of the Holy Spirit. He is the draw rather than the faithful ministry of the Word of God. Most of these charismatic leaders have no plan of succession because there is no one with the same dynamic personality to take over. When they leave, the church flounders. And because megachurches are absorbing so many smaller churches, the fall will be much greater and the impact on the church far more devastating.
We must treat the body of Christ as an organism, not an organization if the life of the church is to be sustained, nurtured and grown. The feeble efforts of man can never substitute for the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as a person’s life is in his spirit, so the life of the church is in the Holy Spirit, not in the efforts or devices of man. I fear the fall of the church will be great if the current trend continues.